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That is very nice for them, but in my constituency on Friday I made two visits. The first was to a playgroup in Brislington which has a huge waiting list and where a dedicated group of parents and playgroup leaders provide a wonderful service for children. They are doing their best to keep the charges to parents as low as possible because they realise that most parents cannot afford to pay the real economic cost and they are reduced to fund-raising in their spare time to keep the playgroup going, recognising how important it is to raise money in order to provide proper equipment for the children. They do not think that providing for messy play indoors, which some Conservative Members seem to think is a waste of time, is anything other than a good thing for children.

I then went to a nursery school in the St Phillip's area of my constituency where I met parents who were concerned that the wonderful services provided by Avon county council through the high scope nursery education system are under threat because, once again, the Government have targeted Avon county council and even bigger cuts in the local authority's budget have to be considered. That means that many parents whose children were receiving full -time nursery education are having to contemplate part-time education. That is against the background of the Conservative leader of Avon county council speaking about the possibility of closing the St. Phillip Marsh nursery school. She was astonished by the hostility that engendered among parents, and it was interesting how quickly she backed off.

People in my constituency and throughout the country depend on such services day after day. They have a right to expect decent child care. Responsible parents want to ensure that their children have play and care facilities that stimulate them. I have seen that with my own baby grandson- -my daughter-in-law has been seeking child care for him. There must be a strategy. Conservative Members know that and we know that, so when will the Government know ?

6.30 pm

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) : I congratulate my hon. Friends on the Front Bench on initiating this debate, which concerns probably the single most important issue for mothers of young children in my constituency.

I have received interesting correspondence about the lack of suitable child care facilities and of accessibility to them. One woman has written to me a number of times. Her latest letter is long, but I want to read it because it illustrates many of the problems confronting single parents in particular, who find life extremely difficult--not least under a Conservative Government.

My constituent wrote :

"I thought I'd write you the next chapter in The life of a single parent longing to return to work'.

I've been offered a job! The perfect job for a parent--16 hours a week, when it suits me, some at home, some in the office, some out and about. Only problem is, I lose more benefit than I gain in wages, especially after paying for child care. I rang the free social security telephone line and spoke to a very helpful gentleman, whose advice was not to work any longer than two hours a week (the time it would take to earn the £15 I'm allowed to earn before benefit reduction).

This situation made me mad enough, but today I have received notice of income tax payable for the coming year--£490 down compared with last year, so I'll pay another £10 tax, plus VAT on fuel, which will cost me £10 a month also.

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Existing on income support is getting harder and harder--both my daughters need new clothes (my eldest goes to school wearing trousers that stop nearly 3 inches above her shoes) but I have difficulty even buying secondhand for them.

And now, going back to work seems even harder too. So today I made a resolution to find a job overseas. Somewhere"

this sentence is significant

"where my honours degree in molecular biology is valued, and where child care is considered a social necessity and not a private luxury.

My father, an ex-staunch Tory, has been telling me since I graduated to go abroad but I resisted through fear of the unknown, and the belief that a British education would be the right thing for my children.

The latter is now highly questionable, and my fear of the unknown has diminished in respect of my disgust of the known--this government does not value its educated citizens nor provide for its future--its children. Very soon, education will have returned to Victorian days--only for the rich.

Anyway, that is it. I can't afford to take the job that was offered, I can't afford a full-time job that pays enough, and I can't manage on the pittance that the government says is my right. I don't want to be rich, I just want to buy my children clothes, shoes, chocolate biscuits. For myself, I'd like to be able to buy my own copy of New Scientist each week, instead of walking to the library! Stupid, little things."

That letter says a great deal about the lives of the many women in this country who find it extremely difficult to survive on income support, and who find life even harder when they try to get jobs. We heard a disgraceful attack on single parents last year, particularly in the build-up to the Tory party conference. We should support single parents by providing subsidised child care and doing what we can to increase its accessibility.

When the Secretary of State for Wales visited St. Mellon housing estate in Cardiff, he was told that half the families there were single parent families. His reaction was not to ask what could be done to help them out of poverty but to attack the unmarried single-parent culture and to suggest that benefits might be withheld until absentee fathers are tracked down. One Treasury Minister claimed that teenage girls could be lured into a life of poverty and state dependency by over-generous benefits.

That is not borne out by the evidence. One single parent interviewed on Radio 4 said :

"There's no question that some of the poorest people in the country are single mothers, so any reduction in benefits would hit an already desperate group--it's an appalling idea. There is no snap solution. People have less faith in marriage and we now have a whole culture who don't believe that marriage necessarily leads to happiness. You can't legislate on people's mental attitudes and morality by threatening them financially."

That was not someone from a left-wing Labour authority speaking, but Harriet Crawley, a single mother who stood as a Tory candidate in the last general election.

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Trust stated :

"Hundreds of thousands of lone parents are trapped on a poverty plateau', where it makes little difference whether they earn £70 or £170 a week. By the time child care and travel costs are taken into account, any incentive to work may have disappeared."

Contrast that with the French approach to single mothers. The Caisses Nationale des Allocations Familiales in Paris organises the French family benefits system and commissions research on family policy. One of its researchers, also speaking on Radio 4, said : "In France, because the value system is different, a majority of women want to be both mothers and work, and the state, unlike the UK, will offer them the necessary support."

That is borne out by the two countries' employment figures

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for single mothers. In France, the figure is 85 per cent., but in the UK--as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) said--it is less than 50 per cent. France, like Belgium and Denmark, is among the European countries that make the most generous provision for child care. That country considers it much more important to provide creches and kindergartens. As soon as children are two years old, they can attend pre-school all day long, with a hot lunch. Some 173,000 places are available in subsidised creches, and there are numerous approved mothers' helpers.

Lone mothers have priority on the day care and pre-school lists, which partly explains why such a high proportion of French lone mothers are in work, and more frequently have a full-time job than their UK counterparts. As a result, they are far less likely to rely on social assistance. French benefits to lone parent families are more generous than in the UK, especially where there is a child under the age of three, or there are three or more children, and the lone parent has a low income.

Family benefits in France are structured to favour larger numbers of children, and there are various training programmes that are relevant to lone mothers. Low-income lone mothers are also eligible for housing allowances. The great difference is that, in France, single mothers are not seen as a drain on taxpayers' money, as their benefits are paid from employers' contributions and because many of them are able to find full- time jobs with the help of the much better child care that is available.

In my local community recently, a survey was carried out by the training and enterprise council in south Cambridgeshire. It was done as a result of a Government pump-priming initiative, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) described it, in an attempt to get more child care schemes under way. The great problem with these schemes is that, although they have been valuable in showing up the deficiencies in child care, many of them will flounder later on because of a lack of money. Far too many people find child care too expensive when they have to pay the full cost out of what they earn. The Cambridgeshire TEC carried out the survey last October. More than 1,000 questionnaires were distributed to the parents of children aged between five and 16. What emerged showed up the differences between my constituency and that of the Prime Minister.

The survey found that 23 per cent. of children in Cambridge had one parent working full time and the other part time ; the corresponding figure for Huntingdon was 44 per cent. There was also a difference in the proportions of parents who both worked full time : 30 per cent. in Cambridge and only 19 per cent. in Huntingdon. There was a great difference in the numbers of single parents : 20 per cent. in Cambridge and 13 per cent. in Huntingdon. Those two places are only 20 miles apart, so the differences are rather surprising. The survey also looked into how most children are looked after. It found that, in Huntingdon, 91 per cent. of child care took place in the family, whereas only 83 per cent. did in Cambridge. In other words, these families have no external help with their child care at all, so grandparents, brothers and sisters, and parents are caring for the children.

When asked, parents said that they were well satisfied with this arrangement. When they were asked, however, whether they would use an out- of-school care scheme, 70 per cent. of them said that they would in Cambridge, and

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82 per cent. in Huntingdon said that they would. That goes to show the unmet need. A great many people who work part time during the school term need full-time care during the holidays.

I have had the pleasure of visiting a number of organisations and firms around my constituency in the past two years. I was, for instance, extremely impressed by the child care provision at the Babraham Institute, a Government research laboratory formerly under the Agricultural and Food Research Council and now under the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It is a research council institute, and it provides a nursery and an out-of-school care scheme for up to 10 children. It is always well used, and is considered of enormous benefit to the parents who work at the institute. I congratulate the director, Richard Dyer, on being innovative and forward-looking enough to start the nursery. The institute's facility contrasts starkly with a bank in central Cambridge--it might not be fair to mention its name. I asked the bank about its child care policy and was told that there was a working party looking into child care and nursery provision in the organisation.

I asked the bank why it did not have a nursery attached to its central Cambridge branch, only to be told that it had considered the idea but decided against it, on the extraordinary ground that, if it did run such a nursery, it would not be able to stop fathers using it as well as mothers. Looking a little taken aback, I asked why that mattered. I was told that, if fathers were allowed to use the facility, their wives would then be free to work for the bank's competitors. I am still reeling from this information. It shows that we have to do a great deal to change this sort of sexist attitude to parents, families and children.

6.45 pm

Owing to the pressure from many single parents, married parents and parents in stable relationships, I decided that I would try to set up a child care project in Cambridge to help people gain access to child care facilities and to give them information about benefits and training. We held an interesting meeting, which I was pleased to note was supported by the Benefits Agency, the Child Support Agency, the county council, the Daycare Trust--it was extremely helpful--the Cambridge job centre, the city council, the Employment Service and the local training and enterprise council.

I explained that I wanted to help a group of single parents back into full or part-time work, with the aim of showing that investing in child care could in the long term prove cheaper than leaving single parents on benefits, without care for their children. This is a social as well as an economic issue. The Daycare Trust said that it believed that the major problem was the lack of adequately subsidised child care. There is a lack of places even in non-subsidised child care.

It also emerged from the meeting that we need a major information drive to reassure parents about coming off income support and on to family credit. Living on income support, at least people know that they are secure, but once they come off it and go into short-term or short-contract jobs, with the attendant insecurity of going on to family credit--they may not be sure that the Benefits Agency will get its sums right--they may worry a great deal about what

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will happen when a job comes to an end. We need to do much more to reassure parents that the process is feasible, and to offer them a little more security.

Although the Government introduced measures in the last Budget to try to deal with the cost of child care, in Cambridge the cost of full-time child care averages £60 to £70 a week. Many people pay much more than that, and presumably some pay less. The manager of the Benefits Agency in Cambridge said that he would like a business plan to be put together showing the long-term benefits of child care--a reduction in staff losses, lower net costs to the Exchequer, support for training places and so on.

The Government are not doing any of this. They are not examining the cost of not providing child care ; they are looking only at the cost of providing it. That attitude is wrong.

Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith) : Although child care is a massive issue for thousands of our constituents, that is often not reflected in either our procedures or media coverage. The reason is obvious : the institutions involved are still dominated by men, whereas in the present state of society child care is still predominantly a women's issue- -although the responsibility should be shared equally between the sexes.

There are several reasons why child care is a massive issue. First, there is the objective reality of increasing female participation in the labour market. The male and female participation rates are now converging : indeed, in parts of the country--such as Lothian region, where I come from- -women are in the majority in the labour force. That, however, masks the existence of a good many problems ; it does not mean that adequate child care facilities are available to all those women.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) mentioned the problem of cost, but there are other problems. For instance, many women returning to the labour market after having children may take up jobs that they do not really want to do : they would prefer to be doing other jobs that it is not possible for them to do. They may also have to work fewer hours than they would like.

Notwithstanding the high rate of female participation in the labour market, only 18 per cent. of lone mothers with children under five are working in this country : that is the lowest rate in Europe. Moreover, the figure for all mothers with children under five is the second lowest.

This is, among other things, an equal opportunities issue, and the Equal Opportunities Commission has said as much. We cannot have a proper equal opportunities policy that does not take child care into account. That is the second reason why this is a massive issue ; the third is that it also has economic implications, as many hon. Members have already pointed out. It can be viewed in many ways, but a fundamental point is that the skills of many women are being lost to the economy. That is why many employers are very interested in child care.

Only today, in the Lobby, I spoke to a representative of Employers for Childcare, who told me that, for that very reason, many employers are keen for the Government to adopt a co-ordinated strategy for child care, in which a number of them wish to be involved. Many studies have shown that the economy would benefit from a massive expansion of child care facilities ; I hope to say more about that later.

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The fourth reason why this is a massive issue relates to poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) covered that very thoroughly.

My own involvement in child care resulted from my membership of the Greater Pilton Childcare Action Group, which operates in my constituency. A fundamental reason for its formation was the area's participation in the European Poverty 3 programme, and the fact that, at an early stage, child care was identified as a key issue in the attack on poverty. Incidentally, I should like to know why the Government are showing no interest in European Poverty 4 programme ; people in my area certainly hope that the project will continue. The ability of women to go out to work is a basic element of the attack on family poverty. That is why so many women in my constituency are keen to have the child care facilities that they need.

The fifth reason why this is a massive issue is the appalling state of child care in this country, in comparison with provision in other European countries. Many statistics show that to be true. For instance, 2 per cent. of care for children under three is publicly funded in this country ; in Denmark, the figure is 48 per cent. In this country, the figure for children between three and five is 37 per cent. ; it is 85 per cent. in Italy and 95 per cent. in France and Belgium.

I should add that there are considerable variations within our 37 per cent. figure. As other hon. Members have pointed out, the percentage is often far higher in areas with Labour-controlled authorities than in Conservative areas. For instance, the figure for nursery education for three and four- year-olds in Lothian region is running at 68 per cent. That is a major factor--and, of course, there are many other arguments for nursery education, in terms of the benefits for children.

There are many reasons, then, why child care is a major issue, and why the House should treat it as such. We want the Government to adopt a co- ordinated strategy ; at present, their policy is very unco-ordinated. The fundamental principle is choice : people should be able to choose the type of child care they want.

The new clauses are concerned specifically with workplace nurseries. Although some Conservative Members have tried to misrepresent us and suggest that that is all we are interested in, they are entirely wrong ; it is only one aspect of the general issue of child care. According to a study carried out by the British Social Attitudes survey, however, 20 per cent. of women with children under five would like workplace nurseries to be available. That is one strand of the policy that we need to formulate.

The new clause deals with the fact that the industrial building allowance is available only to workplace nurseries in industrial buildings and certain types of hotel. It seeks to end that anomaly, and to extend the allowance to all work places. The present position is particularly anomalous in the context of section 14 of the Capital Allowances Act 1990, under which sports pavilions and buildings in all workplaces can receive the allowance while nurseries can receive it only in specific buildings. I shall be interested to hear how the Financial Secretary seeks to justify that anomaly, if he does.

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New clause 1 covers not only nurseries but child care for those of school age. The existing allowances apply only to children under five, but it should be recognised that children often need care after going to school as well as before. Conservative Members have drawn attention to the child care allowance in the Budget. That Government initiative--along with the after-school care initiative--is all right as far as it goes, and Opposition Members welcome both in principle ; but there are many problems with the way in which they have worked in practice. We should like those schemes to be improved and extended. An interesting feature of the child care allowance provided in the Budget is the fact that, only a few months earlier, the Prime Minister dismissed it out of hand. I know that, because I asked him a question about it, and when--as usual--he did not answer, I wrote him a letter. I kept his reply : I keep all his letters. In fact, when I wrote to him about nursery education, pointing out that he was saying something quite different from what his Secretary of State was saying, he did not reply--but the reason for that was obvious.

I found the Prime Minister's letter very interesting. As well as saying that disregards for parents in receipt of family credit were a ridiculous idea, he came up with the staggering assertion : "research has shown that the majority of low income working lone parents do not pay for childcare."

I do not think that research is needed to discover that. The simple truth is that low-income lone parents cannot afford to pay for child care, but that is not adequately addressed by the child care disregard in the Budget.

We have heard about the costs of child care. The maximum allowance available is £28 ; according to an answer that I was given, 90 per cent. of families on family credit cannot receive even £28--and it should be remembered that that is for the whole family. That does not deal with the problem of affordability, which lies at the heart of the debate about child care.

The after-school care initiative is also good in principle, but particular problems are involved, certainly in Scotland. I have tried to find out how much each local enterprise company in Scotland is spending. This week, I received another letter--this time, from a Scottish Office Minister. It said, basically, that I had no right to know the answer : it was for Scottish Enterprise

"to determine whether and to what extent they will provide details of the financial allocations they make to the LECs and it would be inappropriate for Ministers to intervene."

Many enterprise companies in Scotland--including those in Lothian--spent nothing on that initiative last year, but the Scottish Office does not want to admit that publicly. Things seem to be slightly better this year ; we shall wait and see.

The problem with the initiative is that, although it helps with start-up costs, many parents will be unable to afford the cost of after-school care. As I have said, affordability is at the heart of the matter. It was also at the heart of the European child care recommendation, which constitutes a very good guideline, although it was watered down slightly before being adopted just before the general election.

The Government have accepted the European child care recommendation, and at the heart of that recommendation is the idea that public funds should contribute to the provision of affordable child care. In reality, at the moment most people do not have access to affordable child care.

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The Government have to introduce many measures to increase the supply of affordable child care. We have again been misrepresented by Conservative Members as just talking about demand subsidies. Some demand subsidies are necessary, but in fact it is the Tory argument that only demand subsidies will do, because it assumes that the market will provide. We believe that there has to be intervention in the market in order to increase the supply of child care. That is the thrust of our demand for a national child care strategy to look at the supply of child care.

7 pm

We have said that the Government should look at many schemes that are operated already by local authorities--as it happens, most of them Labour- controlled authorities--which have done something to deal with the problem. We have asked the Government to evaluate the schemes and to come up with a co-ordinated strategy instead of the current totally chaotic child care "policy"--if I can call it that--whereby some Government Departments do not know what other Departments are doing.

Partnership arrangements have been mentioned. I am told that these work in north Tyneside, for example. I know from personal experience that they also work in Fife in Scotland, where employers buy places in schemes run in partnership with local authorities. That is one way forward, because many employers recognise that it is in their own interests to make child care places available for their workers. That is part of the economic argument for child care to which I referred earlier.

Beyond that, I think that we need to put more money into the provision of child care. At the heart of the argument are the studies to which I referred earlier in general terms. The studies by the National Children's Bureau, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the Institute for Public Policy Research have shown that, in the long run, the provision of child care will benefit the economy.

I think that the Government recognised this fact in a very small way with their child care disregard in the Budget. That is the way forward, but we should act in conjunction with other policies. For example, the parental leave directive from the European Community, which has not been accepted by the Government, would help in the early stages of children's lives. More generally, the Government should recognise that society is changing and that increasingly men and women will have the same role in the family and in the workplace. The Government have to accept the subsequent changing patterns of work.

A policy from another country that appeals to me is the right of parents in Sweden to work a six-hour day for the first eight years of their children's lives. I think that the Government should look in that direction as well.

Child care is on the agenda now because society has changed. In last week's debate on the family, it appeared that many Conservative Members wanted to go back to the 1950s. They said that everything went wrong in the 1960s-- the implication being that we should go back to the 1950s. I accept that argument to the extent that in the 1950s more people were in work, but the proviso is that it was only full male employment.

Nobody on this side wants to go back to the 1950s. We have to go forward into the 21st century, and prepare for a society in which the roles of men and women in the family and in the workplace will be identical. That is the issue that should be addressed.

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I do not see how the Government can have any justification for arguing against this new clause. It is only one strand in the child care policy which we on this side are proposing. It is time that the Government came up with a policy, instead of introducing the occasional inadequate measure.

Ms Eagle : I support new clause 1. As we have all heard in the debate so far, it would allow the provision of workplace nurseries to attract more extensive capital relief, and would encourage joint ventures-- which are already beginning to occur in some areas--between local authorities and firms to buy places in workplace nurseries. As we consider the Budget, we are in the middle of a social and economic revolution which is changing the face of advanced western societies more rapidly than we ever thought possible. As legislators, we have to look at what is going on around us to see how we can change institutions and structures and how best we can legislate to take account of the changes that are occurring.

In the past 50 years, there has been a revolution in the patterns of family life and employment. The changes, particularly in the labour market and in the structure of jobs--who is working, for how long, for how much and where --have occurred more rapidly in the past 15 years with the deregulation of labour markets. One of the most obvious social revolutions is the massive increase in the number of women who are working or who want to work.

Between now and the end of the century, nine out of 10 new jobs created will be taken by women. Women will probably outnumber men as a proportion of the work force sooner rather than later--certainly by the end of the century. No Government who hope to create a society at ease with itself can possibly contemplate such massive change without seeking to alter societal structures and so accommodate and facilitate a planned, civilised change rather than the chaotic one which will occur if it is left to the market. So far, the Government have failed to respond adequately to the very great challenges that are being laid before them.

Historically, it has always been recognised that child care has to be provided if women are to be able to work effectively. We need only look at what happened during the world wars when women were required to work to sustain the war effort. Suddenly it became possible for women to do heavy engineering work--work that they had never been considered fit to do in the past--and it was quickly realised that women had to go on to the land to produce food. It was quickly recognised that women could perform every role asked of them to sustain the country in some of its darkest hours this century. The Whitehall civil servants and Government Ministers who planned the economies during both world wars realised very

quickly--particularly during the second world war--that in order to mobilise the capacity of 51 per cent. of the population they had to provide child care. Lo and behold, it was provided. But afterwards it was decided that women should be treated like the Turkish guest workers in Germany : once they had served their useful purpose in dire times they were meant to be bundled back into the home where they belonged and left there. So child care was withdrawn, as were jobs and wages that women had begun to take for granted, and women's employment was curtailed.

As I said earlier, at the moment there is a massive increase in participation in part-time work by women. It

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appears that women are more able to be flexible in their employment and want to combine their duties of looking after children and providing a home with work. The social attitudes towards trying to balance a career and look after children are changing, and changing quite rapidly. But the institutions in our society are not changing to enable women to do that.

It is remarkable that so many women have managed, by hook or by crook, to circumvent institutions which do not encourage them to be where they are. I speak from some personal experience, as I believe that many of the women in this place have circumvented structures which were not designed to permit them to be where they are now. I believe that all women empathise with other women who are attempting to do two impossible things when the Government are offering no significant help.

The new clause attempts to help women in one very narrow respect, but it is a travesty for Conservative Members to criticise us for not dealing with some of the other important aspects of child care at a national level and with the strategic provision of child care. We are debating the Finance Bill and the new clause is quite appropriate because it gives us the opportunity to consider some of the economic implications of what is happening with regard to child care provision.

There has been a social and economic revolution and we are in a period of transition. The Government must facilitate a change to do away with some of the contradictions and madnesses with which untrammelled free market forces have left us. Some of those changes have already been alluded to. Millions of women--single parents--are unable to work because the jobs that we have created to date are often low paid and part time. On the money that they earn in the deregulated labour market, women cannot afford to pay for child care, so they are trapped on benefit. That is frustrating for the vast majority of those women who want to go out to work, to be independent and to be able to raise the next generation. All children, whether raised in poverty or otherwise, will be the new generation and, if we do not tackle the problems now, we shall eventually have to deal with the consequences of their being deprived in childhood.

The vast majority of female single parents want to work, to be able to provide more for their children and to have the independence and pride of going out to work. They do not want to be stuck on benefit, but it is practically impossible for them to work because of the lack of child care provision combined with their low earning potential. In the meantime, our benefit bills are soaring while many jobs remain undone, and not only in the caring professions. Children are living in poverty and women are frustrated because they cannot go out to work. One does not need to be a genius to realise that the provision of child care would allow those women to go out to work and come off benefit, thereby making a saving to the Exchequer ; it would mean that they would pay taxes, thereby increasing the tax yield ; it would create additional jobs because people would be needed to provide the child care that allows those women the freedom to go out to work in the first place ; and it would increase spending power, which would also help the recovery.

The provision of adequate child care would also benefit children. All the experts say that it is no good for children

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to be brought up in poverty by frustrated and demoralised parents who cannot go out to work but are stuck on benefit. Those children often cannot mix with their peers because of the restrictions that living in poverty places on families. Children develop much better and more quickly if they can mix with their peers--they grow up more confident and better adapted to the world. Therefore, child care helps mothers and children, the Exchequer and our economy--so why on earth are we not providing it ? I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Forman : The hon. Lady and a number of her colleagues have made a powerful case for investment in child care. I have listened carefully to what they have said and especially to the impressive speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) who spoke without notes, other than those from the Prime Minister which he kept in his pocket. Since Labour Members have broadened the debate and are not focusing solely on the new clause, they should be considering what, in a modern society, should be the appropriate balance of the financial contributions made towards the desirable objective of child care by the individual involved, by employers and by the generality of taxpayers. If I were to hear more from them about the appropriate balance to be struck in the Bill, I might be more persuaded.

7.15 pm

Ms Eagle : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I do not believe that the Government have yet accepted the case for a structured, strategic provision of child care--had they done so, it would have been in place. So far, private provision has been left to develop without intervention from the Government, which is what we would expect given the iron grip of neo-classical ideologies.

Mr. Dorrell : If the hon. Lady does not believe that the Government accept the case for targeted assistance to low-income families for child care so that people can get back to work, will she speculate on why my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget that we were to spend £30 million net of Government money on the child care disregard in family credit ? Why does she think that we have done that if it is not because we accept the need to help people back to work ? When she has answered that question, perhaps she would like to answer that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) and say what she thinks a national child care strategy would look like. Who would pay for it and what would be the result ?

Ms Eagle : I should be the first to concede that a Government who did something about child care provision had finally recognised its importance, but this Government have not given it adequate priority. They have been in power for 15 years and we now have a £50 billion deficit and £20 billion of North sea oil money has been wasted on tax cuts for the very rich. It is therefore a bit rich for the Government to boast about spending £30 million. They have proved their interest in the issue-- let us face the fact that their activity in this sphere does not amount to much, although I recognise that £30 million has been earmarked. My hon. Friends have commented on the inadequacy of that sum and I shall not repeat the arguments, but, when people look back at the Government's record, they will realise that child care has not been a very high priority. It

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is only recently that the Prime Minister has mentioned it as something that is desirable, but the Government have not proved its desirability by committing money to it in anything like the sums needed to make a difference.

Child care should be regarded as part of the economic infrastructure and as an investment in the future. The Government do not yet understand how significant that is. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) came up with the interesting theory that informal child care is the most desirable. That means that the woman around the corner, granny if she is still alive, or anyone who happens to be around, should look after the children.

This country will not be able to compete seriously with the rapidly changing and advancing economies that will emerge in the new world, with their flexible employment patterns, high-tech industries and high levels of education, if we expect 51 per cent. of the population to rely on the woman next door to look after their children. The Government have to be systematic, but I do not believe that they have yet grasped the seriousness or the strategic implications of child care provision. After 15 years in power, it is about time that they did.

Another suggestion from Conservative Members was that we should deregulate the market in child care. They said that there were too many regulations facing anyone who wanted to set up child care provision, but people who go out to work must be confident that their children are in safe hands. There must be an appropriate level of regulation to ensure the quality of care. I cannot think of anything more important to ensure than that.

Leaving it all to the woman next door, or lowering the quality of care to such an extent that nobody knows whether it is good or not, is playing fast and loose with the future of our children and of our economy. After all those years, that is not worthy to be called a Government policy, yet it is all that we have heard from the Conservative party.

Conservatives are quick enough to deregulate the labour market and to help to accelerate changes such as the increase in part-time work. They are quick to celebrate a decline in earning power and the arrival of low wages, and then they wonder why so many people cannot afford to go out to work. They lament the consequences of their own policies, as if they had descended upon them from above. Yet often their economic policies and the ideology that they have pursued have caused some of the problems.

It is time that we took a strategic look at what we can do to deal with the issue nationally. We should not leave it all to patchy and fragmented practice in different parts of the country, some of which is good and some of which is bad. At present, because of the local authority provision, one is three times more likely to have access to child care if one lives in a Labour area than if one lives in a Conservative area. In Labour-controlled areas 40 per cent of all three and four-year-olds are in child care or nursery education, but in Tory areas the proportion is only 13 per cent. It is not fair that those who have the misfortune to grow up in Tory areas should not have access to something so vital.

No serious Government should consider how we can face the future and pay our way in the new economy, without realising that we must invest in child care here and now, or we shall pay for the consequences in the future.

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